The fuss we make about giving up sweets seems ridiculous when a billion Muslims aren’t even drinking water. Catholics once took abstinence seriously

Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayer, started last weekend, days after the Manchester bombing, in which Salman Abedi killed 22 people in the name of Islam. It’s interesting to reflect that he blew himself up shortly before a time when he would be expected to be engaged in fasting and works of charity.

A week before the month of fasting began, I was at an event in Westminster called Welcoming Ramadan, a dinner in aid of the Muslim charity Human Appeal. There were various dignitaries, mostly Muslim, but with guests from other religious groups. It was the only event I’ve ever attended where Krispy Kreme doughnuts were served as canapés – after a day’s fasting, Muslims often eat something sweet to perk themselves up.

I had been invited by one of the speakers, the French-Algerian broadcaster, Nabila Ramdani, who spoke with passion about discrimination against Muslims, observing that every religion has its horrors, including hers. Others included the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and the former attorney general Dominic Grieve, who condemned discrimination against Muslims in Burma, but also, usefully, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the genocide of the Yazidis by ISIS.

It was an amicable gathering, but what struck me most was the unaffected piety of the Muslims attending it. The glamorous young women, in scarves and without, that I spoke to were keen to talk about the festival. One declared that she was looking forward to Ramadan, and couldn’t wait for it to start. Another observed that she had taken the month off work, so as to be able to focus on it. A third complained that she actually put on weight during Ramadan (I think she stuffs herself after dark).

The magazine we were given to take home had guides to prayer, fasting, health and work routine during the month. There were features about the medical value of fasting (it’s true: it makes for longevity) and recipes for ethical halal eating and Ramadan Resolutions – “Be realistic about what works for you; be kind; hold yourself to account” – a sort of life management course filtered through the Koran.

The event itself was about one strand of Ramadan – the charitable giving associated with it – but what was interesting was how those present embraced its ascetic aspects. And the asceticism is formidable. During daylight hours, no food, no drink and no sexual activity, for an entire month. The official number of Muslims in Britain is about three million – the real figure is anyone’s guess – and it’s sobering to reflect that this many people are engaging in self-denial of this rigour right among us. Quite what the effect of this formidable collective self-discipline is on character is anyone’s guess – and plainly it can be hideously misdirected – but it has to have a profound impact.

The melancholy aspect of all this is that Lent pales so dismally by comparison. All the fuss we make about giving up sweets or sugar in our tea seems ridiculous when a billion Muslims aren’t even drinking water during their 30 days of abstinence. The abandonment of the Catholic discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays (its reinstatement in England and Wales has been generally ignored) seems more misguided than ever when Muslims are exhorted to follow their Ramadan fast with abstinence on Mondays and Thursdays. The bishops’ suggestion that we should swap abstinence for good deeds of our choice, to do something positive, seems weak-willed, when Muslims accept that they are obliged to fast as well as pray and undertake acts of charity.

Once it was different: Catholics took self-denial in Lent genuinely seriously. For much of Christian history, we abstained from meat throughout Lent, and indeed from sex (Sundays, then as now, didn’t count). As was evident from Shrove Tuesday – pancakes are for using up milk and eggs; “carnival” is just a word for saying goodbye to meat – Catholics had a quasi-vegan diet in Lent, though with fish making up for meat.

The Orthodox churches are a reminder of how Catholics once kept Lent – with recipes for beans cooked in oil (done with onions, it’s really good). In other words, we were also once able to engage in sustained self-denial in a way that’s inconceivable now; we too were formidably self-disciplined. And like Ramadan, Lent was a social affair: the abstinence was shared, as Dry January is now for secular Brits giving up drink.

Once lost, the habit of fasting is hard to recover. Once Catholic bishops did away with the Friday fast, the damage was done, and it can’t be undone by diktat a generation later. But at least we can look at the Muslim community, as they engage in harder abstinence than we manage on Good Friday, and relearn the habit of self-denial.

Melanie McDonagh is comment editor of the London Evening Standard

This article first appeared in the June 2 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here